The Loudoun Network: Political Backers Gain From Growth
Influence of Developers, Allies Runs Deep
Sunday, January 21, 2007
Six months after they took office in 2004, members of the Loudoun Board of Supervisors demonstrated in a single afternoon their ability to help a friend.
First, they voted 6 to 3 to boost the number of homes that could be built on the family farm of Dale Polen Myers, a former supervisor who had been instrumental in getting many of them elected. The next month, a builder bought the property from Myers's family for $12.2 million -- four times its assessed value before the zoning decision, records show.
Next, the board agreed unanimously to authorize the county to purchase a different parcel for $13.5 million, once again helping Myers, who was acting as the real estate agent. That earned Myers and her boss a commission that by industry standards would range from $270,000 to $675,000.
Such coziness has become routine among some Loudoun officials and a group of politically connected developers, landowners and others in the real estate industry, The Washington Post found in a year-long investigation.
An examination of thousands of e-mails, telephone records and county land databases and scores of interviews shows the extent to which this network of development advocates was able to influence land-use decisions in one of the country's fastest-growing and richest counties.
Supervisors sometimes followed step-by-step direction from those in the development industry on how to vote and what to say in public, according to e-mails and other county records. One planning commissioner who resigned last year voted favorably on projects by companies with which he had business ties.
In their three years in office, a majority of the current board members have voted at least two dozen times in favor of projects benefiting people or companies who helped the officials get elected. Many of those political backers were enriched, including developers and landowners who made millions when their home-building and commercial projects were approved by the county board, as well as development lawyers who netted large legal fees and real estate agents who made commissions on the deals.
Voting for friends or political allies is not, in itself, improper under Virginia conflict-of-interest laws. Those laws prohibit officials from accepting items of value, including business opportunities, that could influence their actions and from voting on matters in which they have a "personal interest."
Experts caution that in many cases it is difficult to determine whether a public official has a personal interest because the legal definition is complex and open to interpretation.
The county's supervisors and planning officials have served as gatekeepers to a wave of suburban development. Since 1990, Loudoun's population has tripled to more than a quarter-million, transforming a landscape of open fields to a series of expanding construction sites. That growth has brought thriving new communities and jobs, as well as worsening traffic and the financial burden of building new schools and providing other services.
Loudoun officials defended their efforts to work closely with developers and others.
"This is local citizen government, and these are complicated issues, and you have to reach out to somebody," said Supervisor Stephen J. Snow (R-Dulles). He said supervisors must tap the expertise and resources of the private sector to solve the county's transportation and other challenges, and that means working proactively with development companies and approving more houses to help generate additional funds.